Egypt, values ride a Mideast-West seesaw

The conflict now raging in Afghanistan is not a war between the United States and Islam, the Bush administration insists.

Yet in jarring contrasts throughout the Middle East, even down to the level of two Cairo neighborhoods, the war”s underlying tensions pit distinctly Islamic traditions, with roots deeply embedded in 1,400-year-old Muslim values, against the unmistakable symbols of a 21st century American lifestyle.

“These are two competing world views, both of which have a universal appeal,” says Esam al-Arian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group that has been outlawed as subversive by the Egyptian government. “Anyone in the world is eligible to be a Muslim. Anyone in the world can be an American.”

But to many, Islam embraces an entire complex of religious and social views, whereas America, in its exported form, represents godless mass consumerism.

This clash of values, which existed long before the events of Sept. 11, is nowhere more starkly apparent as in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation with 62 million citizens. To understand it is also to understand why several Egyptians — including the alleged commander of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Mohamed Atta, and Osama bin Laden”s right-hand man, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri — have played key roles in bin Laden”s violently anti-American al-Qaida network.

In Cairo, the battle is symbolized by an immeasurable fault line that lies between a nameless outdoor tea shop in a rundown slum and a chic mall on the city”s north end.

In their own courteous terms, the slum dwellers echo Osama bin Laden”s assertion that they, too, are engaged in a “decisive battle between atheism and faith.”

Four men are seated at the tea shop, located just behind a mosque in the warren of narrow working class lanes known as al-Sayyida Zeinab, when an American reporter approaches.

Goats graze in a nearby empty lot, on scraps of greens thrown to them by a vegetable peddler. Women, all of them veiled and many with their faces covered, hurry by with enormous brass water jugs balanced on their heads.

The scene might have been set in a rural hamlet in the Prophet Mohammed”s own time, but it unfolded less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in one of the most congested urban centers on earth, a city where an estimated 90 percent of all dwellings have been illegally built or are below government-set standards for sanitation and safety.

The conversation is polite, but pointed. “When you drop bombs on the Afghan people, you also make war on us, on our ways,” says Mohamed Nasrut, a construction worker, pensively inhaling from his she-sha, the Cairo version of a water pipe.

The ways to which Nasrut refers include limits on the lives and behavior of women, and a firm code of respect for elders. “I can neither smoke nor stretch my legs out for relaxation in front of my father,” says Ibrahim, 30, a hotel worker. Relations between the sexes, he adds, “are not like 100 years ago. They are like 1,000 years ago. It is forbidden to meet a girl at all away from her family.”

By contrast, it would be hard to find a place more American in spirit than the Genena Shopping Mall in the wealthy district of Heliopolis seven miles to the northeast.

McDonald”s is present at Genena, along with a Ciao espresso bar, a Nike sports shop, a giant video game arcade, a booth selling subscriptions to Showtime and boutiques displaying the latest in push-up bras and lace thong bikinis. The local cinema features “Jurassic Park III,” “Legally Blonde,” Nicole Kidman”s “Moulin Rouge” and “Planet of the Apes,” all in English.

One result is a tendency among young Cairenes to dream the unthinkable — moving to America, the source of the most seductive consumer images.

“A few of the local kids come up to me and ask about the U.S.,” says a 55-year-old former dock worker returned recently from Brooklyn, one of the few local men of his generation to have lived in the West.

But the more common result of the seesaw between U.S. consumerism and traditional Islamic values, he says, is exactly the opposite. “Religion, serious religion, and a desire to be traditional, are not shrinking,” he says. “They are growing, and thanks to the bombing of Afghanistan, they are likely to grow even faster.”



Frank Viviano is on assignment for Hearst Newspapers. Based in Paris, he is the chief foreign correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.